Japanese whaling ships return in face of international political storm

After more than four months at sea, Japan’s whaling ships have returned from their controversial annual hunt having killed 333 minke whales (155 males and 178 females) in Antarctic waters for what they claim are scientific purposes. Japan uses this so-called ‘research’ reason to exploit a loophole in the international ban on commercial whaling. 

However, the hunts have attracted universal international condemnation from scientists, governments and the public. In 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled  that Japan’s Antarctic whaling programme in the Southern Ocean was illegal and had to stop as it had failed to yield any meaningful scientific results.

As recently as this January, the European Union issued a formal statement of concern regarding Japan’s whaling practices. The strongly worded letter highlighted the lack of scientific justification for the Antarctic hunts, and also criticized Japan’s decision to start new ‘research’ hunts in the North Pacific in 2017 before the International Whaling Commission (the organisation that regulates whaling) will have had time to adequately review and assess the plans and their scientific value. 

Japan’s whalers killed 333 minke whales in the 2015/16 Antarctic hunting season with over 90% of the adult females being pregnant.  The number of pregnant females killed this time around has not been made public. The scientific value of this slaughter has also been called into question by the IWC’s own scientific committee and heavily criticised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - the global authority on the status of the natural world. 

Deck of Japanese whaling ship
Deck of Japanese whaling ship

Much of the whale meat from these ‘scientific’ hunts actually ends up on general sale in Japan and they seem intent on continuing the practice claiming it is part of the Japanese national identity. However, large-scale, industrial whaling in Japan only started after World War II when animal protein was in short supply.

“We really welcomed the strong statement from the EU but now we need to see some action”, says Astrid Fuchs, Stop Whaling programme lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). “The EU is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with Japan. We urge them to make whaling a topic in the next round of talks which will be held in Tokyo this April.  There should be no agreement until Japan stops its whaling and abides by international conventions”.

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